Hailey Black reclines on a small, Victorian sofa in her apartment as the warm spring sunlight pours in through the windows. The walls bristle with artwork, from posters of Italian renaissance classics to surrealist vistas. The scene is unusually calm, considering she took time out of her hectic schedule to chat about her upcoming solo exhibition. Black’s home studio is off-limits until she’s figured out exactly what pieces are going in the show. In the face of an encroaching deadline, she elicits serenity when most people would be panic-stricken. Her advice? Fake it until you make it.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so confident,’ but I’m actually terribly insecure,” she laughs. “I go to do a piece and then I think ‘what is this? I hate this!’ I’ll either paint over it or put it in the closet for a couple of months. Then I pull it out later on and think, ‘Oh, that’s not too bad!’”
“The Liberation of the Individual” is Black’s first solo show since graduating from UNCW’s studio art program in May 2017—and “individual” is the operative word. Although she credits her studies under Anne Lindberg for finessing her painterly hand, Black found a creative vision all her own outside the rigors of academia.
“It’s a lot different when you’re not in art school anymore because you don’t have people constantly giving you input, which is good and bad,” Black explains. “It’s bad because if you’re insecure about it, you’re like, ‘Shit, am I doing the right thing?’ And then it’s also good because you don’t have people influencing you. You just organically work and don’t have to worry about, ‘Am I going to pass this?’ or ‘Am I going to be embarrassed in front of my whole class because it doesn’t look good?’”
As an artist, subjecting yourself to this level of criticism is necessary, but it’s not without drawbacks. Black knows all too well. She remembers one instance which left her abandoning figurative painting.
“I had come up with this figure I really liked, and I liked the whole theme behind it, but everyone was like, ‘No, this is the worst; this is not good.’ They were pretty blatant about it, which is fine because that’s what we’re there for. But I didn’t paint another figure for over a year after. I stopped painting figures altogether, which was something that was really strong in my painting—I was keen on working with. In retrospect it kind of annoys me I let people get to me like that, but it also gave me the chance to work in other kinds of painting too. I was so scared to do abstract painting in college because how do you explain an abstract painting to a class full of figures and flowers?”
Despite her initial hesitation, it turned out to be a pivotal moment which pushed her in a new direction. Black’s paintings explore relationships between forms and colors. Organic contours twist and collapse upon themselves, and stand out against stark monochromatic backgrounds. Her tactile shapes are often striated with contrasting colors, with purple stripes outlining soft masses of pink and white. Black’s abstractions are not merely spattered paint but seem to occupy space and carry weight as though they’re depicting real objects. It lends a sense of maturity to her work and belies her status as a recent college graduate.
Black’s confidence also reveals itself in her installations. Expansive, billowing sheets of multicolored fabric stretch across the room. Large sections of cloth are strategically torn and hemmed to let pillars of light shine through from the ceiling-lights. She named the largest of the pieces “Exodus,” in honor of her father, who loves the Bob Marley song of the same name.
“Whenever I hear that song, it reminds me of him,” she reminisces. “I say it like he’s gone, but fortunately he’s still living. He wasn’t able to make it to my senior show because he had to work the next morning, so he wasn’t able to see the piece. I was really disappointed, but he’s definitely going to be at this show because I said this is on par with a wedding. That’s going to be up for him to see.”
Although, Black didn’t come from a particularly artsy family, she fondly remembers poring over her dad’s random scribbles. Well into adulthood, and even beyond the trials of art school, the little sketches continue to inspire her.
“He was never an artist,” she recalls. “But he would be randomly doodling while watching TV or on the phone. He would make great figures! They were so profound to me, and they were just little sketches. . . . I think they’ve influenced my art a lot. So, I was drawing last night—I couldn’t sleep—and I thought, ‘Wow, this looks like my dad’s stuff.’ It’s not like anything I’ve done before; I think it’ll turn out well.”
Despite the old adage of being unable to get a “real job” with an art degree, Black had no problem after graduation. She credits her art training with honing a creative edge and eye for detail, which led her to work for a public relations firm in downtown Wilmington. Most of all, she’s grateful art has been with her continuously, through good and bad. Her decision to pursue art in college was a welcome revelation after a particularly rough point in her life.
“When I went to college, I was so focused on assimilating myself, I would do art very rarely in my spare time,” she admits. “I was majoring in psychology to be an art therapist. Then I went through a really dark time, like I didn’t think I was going to make it through. I would go home after being utterly exhausted, having no feeling and being super depressed, and art was all I had. I went over to Italy and Paris for the summer, took a couple of philosophy classes—one was the philosophy of art. We got to see all these amazing artists. I could talk about that forever, but I came back and switched my major. When I started in the art program, it felt right. It was doing what I loved most. . . . It’s always been there for me.”